Photos by Williams + Hirakawa
What a difference a year truly makes. When Jillian Banks (aka BANKS) spoke with Variance last summer, she had only a handful of songs to her name and she was still in awe that she would soon perform at London’s O2 Arena with Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd).
Fast-forward more than a year and the Los Angeles-based songstress has just released her debut album, Goddess, which has been heralded by critics and fans alike. She’s spent the past year touring various countries with stops at some of the biggest festivals, including SXSW, Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Talking with Variance shortly after the release of her album, the singer admits she’s “been soaking in every minute of it. The whole release week was a big celebration, playing shows and being around my team, which is like my family.”
Although fans are only now hearing Banks’ material, some of it has been in the works for over a decade. At 15, she taught herself how to play the piano and she began writing music as a way to cope with her parents’ divorce. While studying psychology at the University of Southern California, she continued working on music.
Having “journaled” through song for some of the most formative years of her life, Banks says one of the biggest challenges was knowing which tracks would make the cut for the album. Ultimately, she’s satisfied with the final product.
“I feel like it’s exactly like it should be,” she says without hesitation. “The hardest part of the process was definitely cutting songs out, but I think the ones that are on the album—they touch upon every layer of who I am. So I think it’s perfectly complete.”
The singer, who’s been compared to Erykah Badu and Lykke Li, explains that eliminating songs “that are so close to you” is actually a much greater sacrifice than many people realize.
“It’s probably easy for some people to think songs on an album are just thrown together,” the young singer opines. “And maybe that’s true for some. But all my songs are like my children, except they’re more than that because children are half your DNA and every one of these songs is 100 percent my DNA. So I feel equally attached to every one of them. They’re me. If you were to play one of them, I’d feel that one and I’d connect with it. If you play the next one, I’d feel it just as much.”
"All my songs are like my children, except they’re more than that because children are half your DNA and every one of these songs is 100 percent my DNA."
At 14 tracks on the standard version of Goddess, it’s clear Banks was definitely cutting it close when trimming the record, which was originally aiming for a late-spring release. Some have theorized that perhaps it was moved to September so her label Harvest Records could groom a radio single, such as the gritty standout “Beggin for Thread,” which is currently working its way up alternative radio.
Banks offers a simpler explanation for the delay though: “I just didn’t feel like it was done, to be honest. I didn’t feel like it was perfectly complete yet,” she confesses. “I actually just kept writing. I knew it would be done when I felt like it fully represented who I am, but it was still missing a certain energy.”
Considering how quickly the singer has risen to music’s upper ranks, it wouldn’t be unheard of for Harvest to want a radio single, but Banks says she hasn’t felt pressure to meet any kind of benchmark or fit into a mold.
“I’ve just been me,” she declares rather confidently. “Everybody who’s been involved in my career is involved because they believe in me, my voice and my ideas and who I am as an artist. I don’t even have to think about album sales or radio or any of those other things.”
Fortunately for the singer, early support from those who believed in her music played a significant role in her journey. During her time at USC, her friend and classmate Lily Taylor felt so strongly about Banks’ early material that she shared it with people connected to the music industry. From that point, Banks was introduced to Trevor McFedries (aka Yung Skeeter), who eventually became her manager.
In retrospect, Banks admits it’s hard to wonder how things might have (or have not) turned out if it weren’t for those key moments.
“Initially, [music] was nothing but me trying to express what I had to get out of my heart just to feel sane,” she divulges. “I just needed an outlet so badly. That’s all it was to me. And that’s all it ever will be, just a way—a language—for me, writing music. I didn’t imagine any of this, everything that’s happened. But I think I knew that music was going to be the biggest part of my life. I mean, I couldn’t have known then what I know now, but I knew it was important to me.”
Having poured so much of herself into her music, working so hard to reach this moment in her career, it was that much more surprising when over the summer Banks learned British all-female quartet Neon Jungle was releasing their cover of her single “Waiting Game” on their own album, weeks prior to release of Goddess.
Banks immediately took to Facebook expressing her disapproval, calling the song something she wrote during “one of the most confusing times in my life.” Looking back, the singer calls the situation “upsetting” but says she isn’t dwelling on it anymore. She did, however, take away something of value.
“I saw my fans rallying around me,” she recalls. “For someone who is still fairly new and figuring everything out, it just meant the world to me. I love my fans for supporting me.”
After originally keeping her social media usage to a minimum, Banks has become very active on Instagram and even Twitter. And she acknowledges that interaction is necessary in some ways as she nurtures her fan base.
“Even something as simple as making Spotify playlists of music that I love, stuff like that is still a way of communicating with fans,” she explains. “Like I made one during the tour with The Weeknd and not only is it fun to share the music that means something to me, but I feel like through these playlists and through Instagram, you’re taking people along on your journey.”
While many of her fans appreciate the singer’s increasing presence online, some critics have suggested in recent weeks she’s giving up some of the mystery about her by shedding the metaphorical veil that made her so intriguing early on.
“I don’t even know what any of that means,” says Banks, vexed by such critiques. “The whole idea about this mystery being gone—I don’t even know. I’m just myself. You put your music out and the people say what they want. People call me mysterious, some say I’m not mysterious enough. I can only be myself and they just take it or leave it.”
According to Banks, she learned while on tour with The Weeknd last year that she would likely need thick skin to endure the next phase of her career.
“This is such a crazy and emotional business,” she confesses. “You’re putting your heart out there for everybody to drink up and judge and say what they want. Artists make art because they’re sensitive. But I remember one of the first times I was hanging out with Abel [Tesfaye] on tour and he was like, ‘Let yourself enjoy this. It’s your first tour and we’re playing the O2 Arena.’ And he reminded me to go back to those amazing moments when something goes wrong or the critics don’t like what you do. Remember the good things.”
Banks also heeded that advice back in March during her first festival performance at SXSW, when tech problems plagued the first part of her set.
“That was the only show I’ve done where I literally couldn’t hear anything,” she says, laughing. “I can laugh about it now, but I was panicking. I couldn’t hear the music. Nothing was coming through my in-ears, so I was kind of just winging it.”
It was in that moment that she introduced a cover that has since become a fan favorite, her rendition of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody.”
“I was so nervous,” she recalls of that night in Austin. “So sometimes when I’m nervous I like going over covers and getting into a familiar space right before I go on stage and get my head out of everything. And we did that one right before we went on ... My guitarist starting riffing around and the chords he was playing sounded like ‘Are You That Somebody.’ It reminded me of that song and I love Aaliyah and wish she was still here with us, so we just started playing it and I was like, ‘Let’s do it on stage tonight.’”
Drawing inspiration from the likes of Aaliyah as well as Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott, Banks still insists she’d love to collaborate with any of the latter three. And she admits she’s definitely already thinking ahead about new music.
“Oh, god. That is my home,” she says enthusiastically. “Even on tour, I’m always working on music. Everything else feels boring to me. Making music is the only thing I’m always thinking about.”
While it’s difficult for Banks to make checklists as she thinks about what comes next, she’s optimistic about the future. “Everything that’s been happening so far has been surreal and unexpected and special, and it’s all I can do to just live in the moment. Soak it up. I don’t even know where I’m gonna be in a year. If you asked me a year ago where I’d be today, I wouldn’t have imagined this. So if I could see into the future right now, I think it would just blow my mind.”
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in its original format in the new issue of Variance. Click here for the full version.